A Veteran Soldier's Story about the Government of India
As I see the increasing violence in India’s hinterland by the Naxals and the inevitability of the deployment of the Indian Army – I reflect on my musings on leaving the Army two years ago - when I left the South Block and the Government of India for good.
I stumbled into the Indian Army in the late seventies. The school which admitted us mid-session, when we returned from Singapore, where my father had a brief teaching stint at the Singapore University, was The Army Public School, Dhaula Kuan. With teenage sons of Army officers as friends, it was natural to apply to join the National Defence Academy. A friend filled my form and even paid the application fee. I wasn’t serious at all of pursuing a career in the military - much like Hrithik Roshan in Lakshya. I saw a movie with my friends, after each of the four NDA entrance papers, and argued with my father when he questioned me on my lack of commitment to the exam.
Surprisingly, I qualified on the Service Selection Board standing 19th in the Army all India merit list. I then chose to join the National Defence Academy, as a career was assured at such an early age.
Astonishingly, within a few days of joining the National Defence Academy, at pristine Khadakwasala, I began my life long affection and admiration for the Indian Army. The NDA was awesome and I took to it as if the place was always meant for me. It was, and probably still is, a remarkable institution where everything works like clockwork, and boys transform into enthusiastic, self confident young men with fire in their belly and an idealistic vision to contribute meaningfully to the security challenges that India would face in the future.
Three years later at the Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun, I learnt that toughness and fitness was not just about well developed physical abilities, but also as much about mental strength, and that the IMA motto of ‘Service before Self’ was not some Gandhian mumbo-jumbo, but the very edifice of life in uniform as an officer.
The many years in my Infantry battalion were even more memorable. Not a day was spent as “work”. Every day was enjoyable with a huge family of 800 men; the love, respect and camaraderie was astonishing especially in this day and age. A life of great honesty of purpose; lived simply and with great pride, respect and honor.
I had a tour of duty in Kashmir in every rank I have held. As a Lieutenant in Baramulla before the militancy, as a Captain in the Siachen Glacier at 20,000 feet, as a Major and company commander in Kupwara fighting terrorists, and as Lt Col as second-in-command of my unit in Badgam in a counter insurgency deployment on the outskirts of the Srinagar airport. Finally as a Colonel and Battalion commander, I had three different innings in the Kashmir Valley, first as part of the offensive plans during OP PARAKRAM in 2001, then fighting militants in Anantnag during the 2002 Amarnath Yatra and during the state elections, and finally on the Line of Control in high altitude in the majestic Gurez Valley.
Interspersed between these challenging times was an opportunity to serve with the United Nations in Iraq-Kuwait as a Military Observer where I saw closely officers from 34 different nations from around the globe and learnt from them about their militaries and the relationship between the State and the soldier in other countries.
I also had instructional assignments at the Indian Military Academy, Dehra Dun and at the Infantry School teaching young infantry officers. I then had an enriching year at the Army War College at Mhow during the Higher Command course in 2004-5, learning the art of higher command in the military and traveling to every corner of the country, expanding knowledge, visiting not just our various military headquarters, but also the citadels of economic power of our nation.
After the one year sabbatical at Mhow, I moved, in Apr 2005 to a dream job, to the seat of power of the Army in Delhi – the Army Headquarters with an office in South Block and an appointment in the personnel Branch of the Army dealing with postings and promotions of officers of our Army.
After three years at Delhi, a Brigadiers rank was round the corner in mid 2008. The sixth Pay commission too was promising salaries to meet with the aspirations of soldiers and government officials who had been made to feel like poor cousins to their corporate friends in the galloping India of the 21st century.
In spite of such a bright future, I felt I must I leave the Indian Army.
The three years in the nation’s capital left me with a strange emptiness which refused to go away. All the years, I felt that the many years I spent away from my immediate family, in remote corners of India, were for a cause which was noble and worthwhile. I always felt huge pride for my soldiers and brother officers. I felt there is a grateful nation behind all of us stationed so far away, battling the vagaries of weather and the uncertainty of life.
I remember in Siachen, in 1988, just before we started our deployment on the main Glacier, the shy 17 year old soldier, no more than a kid, who met me, then the Adjutant, and requested me to be posted to the transport platoon after this tenure, as he was very fond of motor vehicles. Four days later, he was violently taken ill at Kumar our Headquarters at 16000 feet. We tended to him the whole night, as the helicopter could come to rescue him away only in the morning. Sadly, the High Altitude Pulmonary Odema which afflicted him was faster. He was dead before the copter arrived at the crack of dawn. It was a sad loss so soon after our induction on to the Glacier, but we took it on our chin as the accepted dangers of a soldier’s life. We shed not a tear, and proceeded to do our duty for the next six months, battling the odds and the enemy, in incredibly difficult conditions.
I recall when a soldier, who had slipped and fallen towards the enemy side was rescued at Bana top, at 20,000 feet by a brave and courageous officer who went across single handedly at grave risk to his life, to get him back. The soldier spent four hours exposed to temperatures of below minus 40 degrees C, (later both his arms were amputated). When I met him in the hospital a month later he said he knew that his company commander would come to rescue him. It taught me a lesson in trust, faith, camaraderie and leadership which I shall never forget for the rest of my life.
I also recall the young soldier who bravely jumped into a building, unrelentingly chasing three dreaded terrorists who had hidden there. We were on the outskirts of Srinagar airfield and fighting a fierce gun battle through the cold winter night in Dec 2000. He killed two of them but in the process was hit by a bullet through the head. He died in my arms. What was even more poignant was the gesture by his father when we honored him on our battalions Raising Day, the following year. In an age where money means everything, the old man broken by his young son’s loss, refused the money we as a unit of 800 had collected as a gesture of our sympathy and concern. He said he had no need for the money and the unit could put it to better use by honoring his brave son in any appropriate way.
What I observed over these three years at Delhi, unfortunately have been a sad revelation of the nature of the relationship between the Indian soldier, the State and the people of India. Like RK Laxman’s common man, I have observed silently the ignorance and apathy of the establishment towards all issues military.
As our expectations from our cricket team, we expect the very best from our military in critical moments of our history, like the 71 War or the Kargil conflict.
If we were to build our home, we shall obviously get the best builders and architects we can afford, if our mother was taken ill, we would look for the very best hospital and doctor that we can afford. The critical question is; do we do enough as a nation to ensure that we have the best military India can afford?
Are we as a nation doing enough to ensure that we have the best men and systems in place to guard our sovereignty and security interests? Do we do enough to recruit and retain the brightest men and do we have the structures in place to meet the security challenges within and across our borders in the coming years?
For a start, the inability to put in place an integrated Chief of Defence Staff is the foremost of our weaknesses and is symptomatic of the apathy and ignorance of military matters in modern India. It is often dismissed as a peripheral issue, one that can wait till the services themselves resolve it. The hard truth is that without true integration of the Army, the Air Force and the Navy, a modern military will be grossly inept and incapable of prosecuting a modern day war. To use the cricketing analogy a bit further, the Kargil war was T 20 cricket and can hide a few fatal flaws, but a full scale war will be like a Test match, only synergy; balance, close integration and team spirit will ensure success.
You cannot blame the Defence Secretary or the civilian staff in the Ministry of Defence for the lack of awareness of these issues - very often the Defence Secretary would not have a days experience in the ministry till he joins as the head of the Ministry of Defence. He may have arrived from the commerce, railways or whichever ministry, the senior most bureaucrat is available at that time. The Defence Minister too often has no experience on defence matters till he becomes the Defence Minister. It is like appointing a CEO in a telecom company who had spent all his life in the cement industry!
We cannot quite expect them to understand the vital need for integration of the Services. As a comparison to our system, the United States has a long tradition of appointing secretaries of Defence and Presidents who have spent years soldiering or they choose from retired Generals with vision and an impeccable record of service for these assignments. In fact, even in India it would be inconceivable for the Foreign Secretary to be appointed from amongst the bureaucrats in say the coal ministry, so this assumption that the defence ministry can be managed by amateurs is an insult and an affront to the security needs of India.
To cite another example, we have no clearly enunciated and documented national counter-terrorism policy. In a nation where the threat of terrorism looms larger with every passing day, it is a matter of shame that we haven’t formulated one yet. With the best minds in the Army, with years of experience in counter terrorism retiring every year, it is a pity we have failed to capitalize on their experience and set out a clearly laid out document. The alarming growth of the Maoists in the Red Corridor will test the ability of the Indian state to respond to this challenge in the coming years. Policing being a State subject and internal threats being the concerns of the Home Ministry, there is an urgent need to look at counter terrorism holistically outside the confines of individual perceptions of States and various ministries. We must radically alter the narrow confines of each ministry when we define the policy for internal threats. There is apparently a visible lack of statesmanship and professionalism on any macro issue concerning national security.
An oblique pointer to India’s concerns on national security and how embedded the military leader is in the psyche of the educated Indian is the representation at various Leadership summits and Conclaves. The ‘who is who’ of India and other countries are invariable present. There will be national political figures, corporate leaders, media barons, and of course movie mughals. So while we have the likes of Aiswarya Rai and Sharukh Khan telling us their take on leadership - the practicing military leader, whether a senior General or the young Major who is an Ashok Chakra winner - shining examples of leadership in its many hues - are conspicuous by their absence.
From our fiercely independent and vibrant media, one would have expected greater maturity in their coverage of security affairs. It is revealing that a study in the USA suggests that the gradual erosion of coverage of international issues by their media networks was possibly a reason for their flawed international security interventions as the American public was not capable or knowledgeable enough to question their leadership. The Indian media must ask itself - do they exhibit enough concern on the larger dimensions of national security and do they have enough knowledge of military affairs to fulfill their role as the watchdogs of the nation? Will the increasing trivialization and localization of news affect our security?
There are many such concerns that we must address as a military, as a society and as a nation. There are individual and collective responsibilities that we must fulfill. Will India and Indians meet the challenge of the future? Time, and the collective will of the nation, will tell.
The 26 years that I have spent in uniform in service of our country along with the most wonderful set of soldiers you can find anywhere on our planet, is a wonderful memory - but sadly- this country does not deserve this fine military.